Hello everyone, and welcome back!
I’ve been meaning to review this one for a while, because I really want there to be more YA in my life written by Canadians and set in Canadian places. (This one happens mostly in Northern Ontario, although it’s not all forests and mosquitoes, I promise.)
It wasn’t exactly the most seasonal read, given that it’s about a summer camp, but catching up to the backlist is important enough to me that I can try to drink tea and overlook that for the time being. (I may or may not want to sink into some comforting re-reads for the holidays, so I may or may not be eating my literary vegetables, aka reading books I’ve owned for too long, right now.)
In any case: let’s get to it!
Everything Beautiful is Not Ruined by Danielle Younge-Ullman
I ordered my copy of this book ages ago from Book Depository, so I have an exceptionally ugly and not at all thematic UK cover that I don’t even want to put here. This one is much more on point, so.
Speaking of: so this book is about Ingrid, who has headed off to a summer camp at the behest of her mother, who will only allow her to attend arts school and pursue a future in theatre if Ingrid does this. (Doesn’t this cover express that so efficiently? Anyway.) However, Ingrid quickly finds out this isn’t just any summer camp: it’s a tough survival trek with at-risk youth.
This book is…fine. Okay, so probably I need to say a lot more than that. Here goes: this book is of a somewhat average YA length, not overly short, but it tries to cover too many bases.
One of those bases is that there are a whole lot of characters, and a lot of them seem like they should have more of an impact than they do or that readers should really care about them, but I never felt like I really got the opportunity to know them very well. There’s Ingrid’s mother, who leaves this feeling behind most bitterly, but also Ingrid’s other parental figure, the other kids at Ingrid’s camp (especially a few of the other girls and the potential love interest), the other love interest from Ingrid’s past, Ingrid’s best friend, etc. All of these people get very surface characterization, and Ingrid’s mother’s is often told and not shown, and it makes it hard to invest in the story.
There are also some awkward subplots, like the one in which sexual assault is used as a trope. Again. It isn’t the world’s worst use of “sexual assault as low-impact event to further plot and be forgotten about” (it isn’t a blatant excuse to have the character be saved by her love interest, at least, and the other characters remember it happened, even if it has minimal consequences) but it’s still kind of eye-rolling. Sexual assault isn’t there just for people to ~get closer~ and ~learn lessons~ in a book, like, this is a thing that holds trauma for real people, and…sigh. Anyway. (I’m trying to find a situation where there’s a book that includes an assault that isn’t totally about rape and rape culture and the inclusion of the assault is necessary and it’s dealt with satisfactorily in the narrative. I haven’t really gotten there.)
Another awkward subplot is that the people who run the wilderness retreat kind of seem like weird sadists in terms of how they force teens into risky situations with no training or guidance and there’s really no resolution to that, nor does it make any sense that anyone taking this retreat wouldn’t have brought that up before (but they seem totally taken aback by it? how).
Okay, but I said the book was fine. So what was fine about it? Well, Ingrid’s sarcasm about the whole situation was amusing. In general, Ingrid was a character with a decently strong voice, and her weak spots (her sense of privilege, her inability to let her walls down) were taken up in the narrative, so it was easy to like her. Her feelings about her mother were compelling, conflicting as they were. (Even though I didn’t feel I knew her mother well enough for that presence to be so strong in the book, I could relate to Ingrid’s feelings about her easily because of how they were portrayed.) Her deep internal rage re: having to take care of her mother instead of the other way around was tangible and easy to sympathize with. And I wanted to like a lot of the other characters on the retreat, even though I didn’t get to know them very well. (And Ingrid’s other parent figure, too.) I feel like we did get strong senses of people’s general personalities and what they felt in the moment, so as a character-driven story this felt like it had flashes of…insight?
But overall, it was pretty hard to invest in. The plot is basically just that everyone is learning to be better people by toughing it out (a little more toughly than necessary) in the woods while thinking about their sad backstories, but then we don’t really get all of the sad backstories or get to know all of the people with the sad backstories or get to know all of the people from just the protagonist’s sad backstory. So it doesn’t really make it to the emotional deep-dive level it needs to make the ending (which should’ve been very emotional) land.
Welp, sadly, this isn’t the Canadian YA that’s going to set me on a path of raving about the authors of my province. Any Canadian YA you have to recommend? Or how about YA from your non-US/UK country? (I’m looking at you, Australians.) Let me know in the comments, and I’ll speak to you again soon!